In coursebooks, usually the sequence of a listening lesson proceeds from the general to the particular and then the students pair-check their answers. Is this proof enough that students are developing their listening or does there have to be another dimension of the strategy development for better listening?
Dr. Richards responds:
It depends on the kind of text students will listen to and what their purposes for listening are. Listening to a news story involves a different approach to listening than listening to casual conversation. So first one has to consider the type of text, the level of complexity of the text, what background knowledge students bring to the text, and the listening purpose. The choice of listening task or activity that you use should provide guided practice in listening. Support for listening can be given through pre-teaching key words, by activating background knowledge, and by establishing an appropriate listening purpose. A series of tasks can be used that first require global listening, and then move to more detailed listening.
What are the virtues and the weaknesses of the commercially-produced materials as opposed to the localized teacher-made materials?
Dr. Richards responds:
Commercial materials are usually intended for a diverse audience of teachers and learners, so will often not be directly applicable to a local context and may need to be adapted and localized. Teacher-made materials have the advantage of reflecting the specific context and the needs of learners in that context. An advantage of commercial materials is that they are usually prepared by experts and carefully edited and field tested before publication. With teacher-made materials there is no guarantee that the quality will match those of commercial textbooks, since teachers may not have had any training in materials’ preparation.
Submitted by Mahmoud Ali Ahmadi Pour, Kian Language Academy, Iran
What are the characteristics of a good free discussion class?
Is there a specific design for a free discussion class?
What techniques can be applied to the free discussion class so that it helps improve the students English proficiency both in accuracy and fluency?
Dr. Richards responds:
Discussion skills may be important for students using English in school and academic settings, as well as for those using English for business communications. However ‘discussions’ have often been a substitute for a serious approach to the teaching of spoken English. An example of this is seen in the ‘so-called conversation’ classes that are often a feature of English programmes at both secondary and tertiary level in many countries. These are typically unfocused sessions organized around the topics of the day drawn from the media and other sources. While the goal is to find engaging content that will generate discussion such activities have little impact on the development of students’ oral skills. Poorly planned discussion activities allow stronger students to dominate, are unfocused and do not provide for systematic feedback. If discussion skills are to be taken seriously as an important component of a spoken English course, rather than as a filler-activity, their nature and features need to be addressed systematically.
A discussion is an interaction focusing on exchanging ideas about a topic and presenting points of view and opinions. Of course, people often ‘discuss’ topics in casual conversation, such as the weather or recent experiences, but discussions of that kind are often merely ‘chit-chat’ – a form of politeness and social interaction. They do not usually lead to ‘real’ discussions where more serious topics of interest and importance are talked about for an extended period of time, in order to arrive at a consensus about something, solve a problem or explore different sides of an issue. It is discussions of this kind that are the focus here, particularly those that take place in an educational or professional setting.
Skills involved in taking part in discussions include:
Presenting a point of view.
Supporting a point of view.
Taking a turn.
Sustaining a turn.
Listening to others’ opinions.
Agreeing and disagreeing with opinions.
Summarizing a position.
Approaches to teaching discussion skills centre on addressing the following issues
Choosing topics: Topics may be chosen by students or assigned by the teacher. Both options offer different possibilities for student involvement.
Forming groups: Small groups of four to five allow for more active participation, and care is needed to establish groups of compatible participants. For some tasks, roles may be assigned (e.g. group leader, note-taker, observer).
Preparing for discussions: Before groups are assigned a task, it may be necessary to review background knowledge, assign information-gathering tasks (e.g. watching a video) and teach some of the specific ways students can present a viewpoint, interrupt, disagree politely, etc.
Giving guidelines: The parameters for the discussion should be clear so that students are clear how long the discussion will last, what the expected outcomes
Evaluating discussions: Both the teacher and the students can be involved in reflection on discussions. The teacher may want to focus on the amount and quality of input from participants and give suggestions for improvement. Some review of language used may be useful at this point. Students may comment on their own performance and difficulties they experienced and give suggestions for future discussions.
Submitted by Surya Vellanki, Nizwa College of Technology, Oman
What methods are generally used in teaching speaking skills to English for specific purposes (ESP) business students?
Dr. Richards responds:
It will depend on the level of the students and their particular needs. A needs analysis would be the starting point to determine the kinds of speaking skills they need to develop, depending on their work contexts. Then tasks should be developed that focus on the kinds of speaking performance they need to master. No matter what methodology is chosen (content based, competency based, task based), students will need to be able to handle authentic spoken exchanges relevant to their working contexts. There are many useful sources on the internet that provide models and examples of different kinds of transactions that occur in business contexts.
I’m working in a scientific research centre in which the majority of the staff have very limited capacity in English language. This is due to receiving their undergraduates syllabus in the mother language (i.e. Arabic).
I am planning to start a unit for developing their English qualifications. I would like to have your advice in where & how to start, taking in consideration their different specializations such as chemistry, physics, invertebrates, geology, and biology.
Professor Richards Responds:
I would suggest starting with a general English course to bring up their proficiency to at least a B1 on CEF. Then you could move to more of an ESP approach. A very good resource to use would be Helen Basturkmen’s book, Developing Courses in English For Specific Purposes.
Professor Richards has been invited to serve as en educational consultant to Cambridge English Teacher – an on-line teacher development site for English teachers – a joint project of Cambridge University Press and Cambridge ESOL. Professor Richards will be involved in planning new courses to be made available on CET and will also be able to respond to questions from members of CET. For more information see here.